Researching Your Mentally Ill Ancestor

State Lunatic Asylum, Buffalo, Erie County, NY. Historic American Buildings Survey, May 1965. Boucher, Jack E., creator. Library of Congress Reproduction Number: HABS NY,15-BUF,9--2 (researching your mentally ill ancestor)
State Lunatic Asylum, Buffalo, Erie County, NY. Historic American Buildings Survey, May 1965. Boucher, Jack E., creator. Library of Congress Reproduction Number: HABS NY,15-BUF,9–2

Readers of this blog sometimes ask me how they can find a records for their own mentally ill ancestor. I try to answer these questions to the best of my knowledge. I want to share what I know with others, and it seems more efficient to do it in a blog post than in many emails to individuals. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy hearing from my readers, and will respond as time allows. My goal for this article is to have something useful to point to if a reader has a question about their mentally ill ancestor.

This is not a comprehensive how-to article.  What I’m writing here is my personal take, including a few things that I haven’t seen in the articles I’ve read so far.  There are some good articles out there on the subject and I have added links to some of them at the bottom of this post. Let me know if you find any articles on researching mentally ill ancestors that I may have missed.

Locating a patient record for a mentally ill ancestor

If you are looking for the records of an ancestor who was committed to a state hospital, you should first look at what government agency within the state is likely to have them. In most cases, it will be either the mental health department or the state archives. I did an Internet search for the name of the state hospital where my ancestors were patients and added the key words “patient records.” I immediately turned up a record group containing Norwich State Hospital patient records at the State Archives of Connecticut.  (https://ctstatelibrary.org/RG021_008.html)

I was able to obtain copies of my ancestors’ records for two reasons. Reason one was that they were deceased. Reason two was that I submitted death certificates and birth certificates to prove that I am a descendant of the deceased patients. I am thankful that the State Archives of Connecticut had the foresight to save these records. I’ve heard anecdotes about patient records rotting in abandoned state hospital buildings because the hospitals had closed before there were policies in place for records retention.

Not every state provides such access to medical records, even for family members. Two of my relatives were in hospitals in other states which would not allow me access to their patient records.  In one case, they required a court order.  In the other, they wouldn’t even confirm whether my ancestor had been a patient at all.

Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want

When in doubt, ask. It doesn’t hurt to ask if an archive or mental health department has records. Be prepared to tell them the specifics of your request, such as the name of the institution (if you know it) and a range of years that you think your ancestor was there. If they say they don’t have them, ask follow-up questions, such as, “Can you suggest anywhere else I should look?” Some records may have ended up in museums or historical societies.

Other sources of information on a mentally ill ancestor

If you can’t locate records for your mentally ill ancestors, or you did but are not being allowed access to them, there are other things you can do to learn more about what happened to them.

Old newspapers
"Committed to Norwich State Hospital," Norwich Bulletin, Friday, July 12, 1912. p. 2. (researching your mentally ill ancestor)
“Committed to Norwich State Hospital,” Norwich Bulletin, Friday, July 12, 1912. p. 2.

Search old newspapers and court records. You’d be surprised what they used to print in local papers a hundred years ago, things that now would be considered violations of privacy. There might have been an incident or a crime committed which caused your ancestor to be committed. If a probate court order was required for committal, there might also be an announcement of the hearing or a report in the local newspaper.  The article on the left was found, for free, on the Library of Congress newspaper site, Chronicling America.

Court records

Search local probate court records for your ancestor.  I recommend contacting a local history librarian at the public library or a historical society in the area first.  They will likely know the ins and outs of searching and requesting  courthouse records.  What they know may save you time and frustration.

Research the hospital itself
Report of the Norwich Hospital for the Insane to the Governor for the two years ended September 30, 1910. State of Connecticut Public Document no. 51. (researching your mentally ill ancestor)
Report of the Norwich Hospital for the Insane to the Governor for the two years ended September 30, 1910. State of Connecticut Public Document no. 51.

Researching the hospital where your ancestor was committed might give you some idea of what their lives were like in an insane asylum. As a government agency, the Superintendent of a state hospital probably had to publish annual reports.

In my family’s case, Norwich State Hospital for the Insane published biennial reports that contained information such as patient statistics and plans for future construction. Of course, I took these reports with a grain of salt. The reports were all about trying to make the hospital look good to the Governor and the public.  I suspect that they left out any instances of abuse or accidents involving the patients.  Still, you might learn something about the facilities and services available to your ancestor.

At the Connecticut State Library, I found a 1939 report commissioned by the State Legislature investigating conditions at Norwich State Hospital.  Even better, I also found a rebuttal by the hospital’s Board of Trustees. This was of great interest to me, since 1939 was in the middle of the years during which my grandmother was a patient.  Another interesting find was a 1931 insurance appraisal of the hospital.  It not only gave values for all of the buildings, it also had photographs of every building from the Administration Building to the wards to the dairy barn.  There was even a map of the entire hospital complex.

I also found a hospital employee newsletter called The Stylus which was published from 1941 to 1944.  It ceased publication due to a paper shortage, and was never restarted.

Take care of yourself

Finally, if what you learn about your ancestors becomes upsetting, think about finding someone to talk to about your feelings.  This is especially true if you want to keep researching. You might think I’m kidding, but I’m not. I have five mentally ill women ancestors who were very closely related to each other and to me: my great-grandmother and one of her sisters, and my grandmother and both of her sisters. Holy inherited family trauma, Batman!

Early in my research, I experienced a return of anxiety symptoms that I thought I had licked years ago through cognitive behavioral therapy. CBT is method of helping a person cope with current problems, but it does not involve examining the person’s past for the root causes of anxiety or depression. It wasn’t until I decided to explore my mother’s family stories that I realized the therapy I’d had only dealt with half the problem. I found a psychoanalytic therapist who has been helpful during my exploration of my family’s past.

Good luck!

I wish everyone the best of luck in finding the answers they seek about their mentally ill ancestor. It takes courage to face the facts about their tormented lives.  Doing so can be a path to empathy and understanding. Researching their lives and sharing what you have learned is not only empowering for you.  It can also be a way of honoring their experience and ensuring that they are not forgotten.

External Links (in no particular order)

Discovering Mental Illness In Your Family Tree via The Family Bible, a blog about family history and genealogy.

Mental Illness Genealogy: Steadman Gray via The Handwritten Past, with articles by professional genealogists.

Researching Ancestors Who Were Committed to Asylums, Using Old Newspapers via GenealogyBank.

Ancestor’s Mental Health or Any Medical Records Can Be Very Hard to Come By!  via the National Genealogical Society.

Genealogy Workbook: Institutional Records via FamilyTree.

14 Common Misconceptions About People Who Go to Therapy via the Huffington Post

Sources Consulted

Connecticut. Norwich State Hospital. Norwich State Hospital Records. 1904-1996. Connecticut State Library, RG021_008.  https://ctstatelibrary.org/RG021_008.html

Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.  Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities.  https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/.

Connecticut. Norwich Hospital for the Insane. Report of the Norwich Hospital for the Insane to the Governor for the two years ended … [Norwich, Conn.] : The Hospital, 1907-1942. State of Connecticut Public Document no. 51.

Connecticut. Commission on the Treatment and Care of People Afflicted With Physical or Mental Disabilities. Report of the study of conditions at the Norwich State Hospital, August 15-November 15, 1939. [Hartford?] : The Commission, [1939?].

Connecticut. Norwich State Hospital. Board of Trustees. [Comment on the report of the Commission on the Treatment and Care of People Afflicted with Physical or Mental Disabilities concerning a study of the conditions at Norwich State Hospital]. [Norwich, Conn.? : Board of Trustees, Norwich State Hospital, 1939].

The Stylus of the Norwich State Hospital. Norwich, Conn.: Norwich State Hospital, 1941-1944.

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